Technology giant Google, having conquered the internet and the world around it, is taking on a new challenge: violent extremism. The company, through its eight-month-old think tank, Google Ideas, is paying for 80 former Muslim extremists, neo-Nazis, US gang members and other former radicals to gather in Dublin this weekend to explore how technology can play a role in de-radicalisation efforts around the globe.
The 'formers', as they have been dubbed by Google, will be surrounded by 120 thinkers, activists, philanthropists and business leaders. And the hope is that together they will dissect the question of what draws some people, especially young people, to extremist movements and why some leave.
"We are trying to reframe issues like radicalisation and see how we can apply technology to it," said Jared Cohen, the 29-year-old former State Department official who agreed to head Google Ideas with the understanding he would host such a conference.
In forming Google Ideas, company officials said, they were eager to move beyond the traditional think tank model of conducting studies and publishing books, saying their "think/do tank" would make action central to its mission.
But in its first venture, that decision to enter the space between thinking and doing is also proving to be provocative, as Google steps into an arena traditionally left to governments.
"That could be problematic - especially if it is perceived to be in conflict with the foreign policy of the United States," said Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, who specialises in theories and application of power. He added that the ambition could "complicate things further since profit is ostensibly involved."
Cohen said the approach at the conference will be to treat extremism as a universal problem that cuts across cultural, ideological, political, religious and geographic boundaries. By bringing together former extremists from a range of backgrounds, he theorises, rather than studying violence as it comes up in distinct groups, it might be easier to understand the common factors that pull people into violence.
He declined to detail what types of technology Google might deploy to combat extremism, saying he didn't want to prescribe an answer ahead of the gathering. But he said a major campaign in the coming months could harness the power of YouTube, employ advanced mapping techniques or create alternative Web spaces to compete with radicalising voices.
The Dublin conference, formally known as the Summit Against Violent Extremism, or SAVE, will run Sunday through Tuesday. The location was chosen in part because of Dublin's history, and other countries likely would have barred some of the participants from entry, Cohen said. Google Ideas defines 'formers' as those who not only have renounced violence, but are taking action against their former organisations.
(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)